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Gordon Opens Busy Year With New Ride : Racing: Switch to Ford truck for Anaheim Stadium race tonight will begin season in which he will drive in three series.

January 20, 1990|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robby Gordon, driving a Toyota sport truck that was built, owned and maintained by Cal Wells, dominated the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Championship Gran Prix season last year.

Tonight, in the 1990 season opener at Anaheim Stadium--racing will start at 7:30 before a crowd anticipated at 65,000--Gordon will be in a Ford, built by Russ Wernimont and owned by Jim Venable.

In nine races in his first season in a truck, Gordon won at Anaheim, San Diego, New Orleans and the Coliseum, finished first at Seattle before being disqualified, and lost at the Rose Bowl by the width of Walker Evans' Jeep.

Was it the man, or the machine, that contributed most to last year's success? The new season may supply the answer.

Gordon will be in a new truck, driving for a team unfamiliar with stadium racing, although it is a proven winner in desert racing. Wells will have Jeff Huber, who won the stadium championship driving a Mazda truck in 1987, in Gordon's place.

Wells wouldn't be surprised, however, if Gordon, his former protege, is dominant again.

"Robby has the unique ability to pull things out of a vehicle that others can't," Wells said. "I think he is one of the most talented drivers in the United States right now, and I wish I could have kept him. But his career is at a significant turning point, and he received an opportunity he couldn't resist."

The opportunity includes more than just racing trucks for Ford.

Gordon, who turned 21 on Jan. 2, also will drive a Mercury Cougar for Jack Roush's factory team in the International Motor Sports Assn.'s Camel GTO series.

"The story of how Robby got that GTO ride is indicative of how much talent he has," said Venable, a former racer who grew up in Hemet with Rodney Hall and Jim Fricker, two of off-road racing's pioneers.

"Because he drove the Baja 1000 solo and won without getting out of the cab for 18 hours, Ford asked him to drive in the 24-hour race at Daytona with Mark Martin, the Winston Cup stock car guy. First, though, they wanted to see how he reacted to driving on pavement in a race car, so they invited him to test at Sebring (Fla.), where they were holding tryouts for their GTO team.

"Ford had eight or nine young drivers down there testing, but all Robby was supposed to do was get some track time. Well, when they started clocking him, Robby was fastest of them all. And he'd never even sat in a car like that before he arrived in Sebring.

"Before we knew what was happening, Roush signed Robby to a contract to drive the full IMSA series with (Trans-Am champion) Dorsey Schroeder, not just the Daytona race."

Having to drive in three series will pose some sticky logistical problems for Gordon. But, fortunately for him, Venable owns Hemet Valley Flying Service, which furnishes planes for dropping water and chemicals on forest fires.

"We've got more than 50 planes out there, so I'll find a way to move Robby around," Venable said. "But he'll have do without stewardesses."

The big crunch will occur April 21 when Gordon plans to drive in three events in two countries: the San Felipe 250 desert race on the east coast of Mexico's Baja California at 8:30 a.m.; the Long Beach Grand Prix GTO race at 4:15 p.m.; and the Phoenix stadium off-road race at 7:30 p.m.

"Robby will log a lot of time in one of our Aero Commanders that week," Venable said. "He'll be in Phoenix to qualify on Thursday, fly back to Long Beach to qualify the Cougar on Friday, fly down to San Felipe that night.

"The San Felipe race, if all goes well, should last about four hours. The plane will be waiting for him and we ought to get back to Long Beach with about an hour or so to spare. Long Beach is just a sprint race, so we should be headed back to Phoenix in time for him to make the first heat in the truck.

"When you're barely 21, you can do things like that. I'm the one who may suffer the most, especially when Robby wants me to stop at a Burger King for a hamburger and Coke at 6 in the morning."

Venable is 53, and the father of eight children.

"You'd better make that nine," he said. "Since Robby joined us right out of high school (El Modena in Orange), it's been like having another kid around the house. But Mary (Mrs. Venable) and I have enjoyed watching him mature the last couple of years."

Although Gordon drove a Toyota in stadium races last year, he drove a Ford for Venable in the desert and was just as dominating there.

Gordon won three races overall--driving a 4,500-pound truck against the lighter, more nimble single-seat and two-seat racing buggies--including both Baja events, the 500-mile Internacional and the Ensenada-to-La Paz 1,000. It was the first time a truck had won the 1,000 overall since Walker Evans did it in 1979.

When Gordon climbed out of his truck at La Paz after nearly 18 hours, his mother was waiting for him with two cups of water. Gordon poured them over the heads of his co-drivers: Wernimont, who rode the first half; and Bob Bower, who finished the race.

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